Commemorating France's Unknown Soldier

By Robert Korengold

It's now been 92 years since a single French soldier slain on the battlefield of the first World War but whose name and origin remained unknown, was buried on November 11, 1920, under the monumental Arc de Triomphe at the top of the Champs Elysees avenue in Paris.

But every year since then, on November 11, the date which marked the end in 1918 of World War I, once optimistically but mistakenly hailed as "The War to End All Wars," France solemnly celebrates the occasion with a high-level wreath-laying ceremony on the Unknown Soldier's tomb at the Arc.

However, now 92 years later, what few recall are the complex origins both of the ceremony and the selection of the unknown soldier to be so honored.

The idea that some symbolic honor be bestowed on a French soldier who had died fighting for his country in the 1914-18 war against Germany first was broached in November, 1916, long before the end of the war, by a local official in the city of Rennes, which had figured in much of the fighting.

Little by little the idea gathered backing until finally, in December, 1919, more than a year after the end of the war, it reached then French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau. He formally approved the idea but originally proposed that a suitable tomb for an unknown soldier be installed in the Pantheon, the honorary burial place in Paris for France's major historical figures.

French veterans' organizations argued, however, that the unknown soldier's burial place should be in a prestigious location reserved for him alone. They favored the Arc de Triomphe, originally built to honor military who died in the French revolutionary and Napoleonic-era wars. And so it was decided.

What then remained was to find and choose the soldier to be honored.The physical search, having received parliamentary approval, was begun November 8, 1920, with, however, some basic guidelines.

In order to allow each French family who had lost a soldier in the war to consider that the honored one could, perhaps, be theirs. one body was ordered to be unearthed and chosen from each of eight major areas of conflict during the war. Every precaution was ordered be taken to be sure the the body selected was indeed a French soldier. That was not always an easy task because not even the nationalities, much less the identities, of many of the dead bodies recovered on the battlefields could be established with certainty.

Nevertheless, by the 9th of November eight bodies had been selected, placed in oak caskets and transported to an underground chamber in the Citadelle of Verdun, one of the heaviest battle areas of Eastern France. On the way, placement of the caskets was changed constantly so that, on arrival, it deliberately was virtually impossible to tell which one came from what area.

On the 10th of November, with the caskets lined up in side-by-side rows of four each, the choice of the soldier destined to rest forever under the Arc de Triomphe was to be made by a locally stationed simple soldier considered to have been valiant on the battlefield.

However, the one originally scheduled fell ill and, in haste, a replacement from the same Verdun-stationed unit, had to be chosen.The pick went to 21-year-old August Thin, chosen just four hours prior to the ceremony that would officially designate the Unknown Soldier. In the circumstances, Thin was considered valiant enough because his father had been killed in battle and he had participated himself in some of the fighting and indeed had been gassed on the battlefield.


Hastily outfitted in a new, cleaned and pressed uniform and wearing a steel soldier's battle helmet, Thin then was taken into the casket-laden chamber of the Citadelle and told to make his historic choice. While buglers in attendance played a muted Taps and army drummers rolled a soft-background accompaniment, Thins walked quickly once around the flag-draped coffins and then on a slower tour laid a bouquet of red and white violets given him by the Minister of Pensions Andre Maginot on what he deemed to be sixth of the eight caskets before him.

The Unknown Soldier had been chosen.

From the Citadelle in Verdun, his casket was taken on a horese-drawn 75 millimeter cannon platform to the train for Paris accompanied by a rifle-toting military guard of honor that included Thin.

Arriving in Paris on November 11, the casket was put on another, larger 155-millimeter cannon platform and taken briefly to the Pantheon where then French President Raymond Poincare made a laudatory speech to a massive crowd of Parisians assembled for the ceremony, The casket, still on its horse-drawn cannon platform, then moved on to the Arc de Triomphe where, in front of another massive crowd of spectators, the officially chosen Unknown Soldier was finally laid to rest.

Back in Vernon, at the same moment, Thin participated with comrades of his regiment in another ceremony that returned to earth in a local cemetery the caskets of the seven unidentified soldiers who had come close, but not quite close enough to eternal glory.

Three months later, Thin left the army at the end of his required service period and returned to his job as a baker. He later explained that he had taken the number 6 because, looking for a logic for his choice, he decided to take the total of the three numbers of his 132nd regiment.

Although Thin's role in the Unknown Soldier epic remains virtually unknown, the logic of such a commemorative gesture by France did not go unnoticed by other countries that had engaged in the battles of 1914-1918. Subsequently, for example, Belgium, Great Britain, the United States, Portugal, Romania and eventually, Canada all similarly have paid honor to one of their unidentified soldiers who perished in the "War to End All Wars."

 

Public Domain MarkPhoto 1 This work (M. Markovitch devant la tombe du Soldat Inconnu), via Gallica.bnf.fr) is free of known copyright restrictions.

Public Domain MarkPhoto 2 This work (Défilé d'une batterie de 75 devant la tombe du Soldat inconnu), via Gallica.bnf.fr) is free of known copyright restrictions.

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